3:30 PM EST, November 13, 2011
Elie Wiesel once famously wrote, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Sadly, as we learned again this week at Penn State University, silence among leadership and those in authority empowered an alleged child abuser.
Certainly the crime of sexual child abuse turns our community and causes outrage that continues to make us question whom we leave our vulnerable loved ones with. At Baltimore Child Abuse Center we see over 900 children annually right here in Baltimore. In 90 percent of these cases the child knows their abuser — they are too frequently trusted adults such as family, neighbors, coaches and people who we believe will have children's best interests at heart but sadly do not. The abuser can be anyone among us — this is not someone else's problem, it's our problem.
However, the sad lesson worth noting and learning from is the failure to help these children due to the silence of all those who had heard allegations of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse. There simply is no excuse that no one did anything — not a thing to confront Mr. Sandusky or get law enforcement involved. Were they all so afraid of being wrong to accuse, or even worse afraid of the fallout if child abuse was discovered at Penn State, so they chose silence over action?
Is their inaction really any different than Martin Niemoller's famous quote that "when they came for the Jews, I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew"? What more does someone have to see or hear to make a report and stop child sex abuse?
Abuse only stops when someone steps in and reports it — when all too many responsible authority figures turned a blind eye to alleged abuse of minors in a locker room, they failed in their ethical responsibilities as basic human beings. Kids cannot protect themselves alone; adults need to stand up for children and to insist that abuse stop and something gets done about it.
Maryland Family Law states in several sections of its code that a "person … who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect shall … notify the local department or the appropriate law enforcement agency." It doesn't get clearer than that. And those laws are in addition to the mandatory requirements placed upon health practitioners, police officers, educators and human service workers.
These laws don't state that you need to get permission from your supervisor, your rabbi, your priest, your school principal, an investigatory committee — they state that you need to report abuse when it's suspected. You call 911, you call child protective services (410-361-2235).
But what good are laws if citizens — parents, adults, bystanders — don't act upon and use them? It's time we stopped sexual child abuse, and it's time we stopped our collective communal inaction. Our leaders urge us to report suspected terrorists; it's time we report suspected child abusers.
Perhaps another quote from Elie Wiesel should explain what we must do as a society: "One person of integrity can make a difference." It's time to be that person of integrity and stop the continued abuse children in our midst.
Adam Rosenberg, Baltimore
The writer is executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
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